By now, you are likely to have read at least one review of the year gone by, and more than one curtain-raiser of what 2020 has in store. The prediction business is both overdone and overrated, but nevertheless necessary: to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Today, let me suggest some books you should read to be broadly ready to deal with the coming year. In fact, reading books and long articles, like most curious and literate people used to until the advent of smartphones and social media, is the zeroth way to be prepared for the future. Whereas we mostly express instinctive reactions to others’ instinctive opinions on social media, the old-fashioned acts of reading, reflection and discussion allow our mind to arrive at its own conclusion. So, read. You can start with the following.
I know it is politically very unfashionable to mention the N-word unless it is to condemn the many failings — some real but mostly imagined —of Jawaharlal Nehru, but The Discovery of India is essential reading for anyone who is interested in India’s future. Few people know that Nehru wrote the book entirely from memory while he was in prison, on bits of paper that his jailers would allow him to have. You won’t agree with everything that he wrote, but that is why you should read it. You’ll see Nehru contemplating many of the political questions that we face today and coming up with his answers. You should read the entire book especially if you dislike Nehru, not least because you can boast that you’ve read it when you debate people who are fond of him.
At a time when a lot of people are going around wearing nationalism on their sleeves, it is good to figure out what nationalism is and is not. For instance, while India might have been a nation through history, nationalism itself is a 19th-century European idea that was imported into our soil, much like liberalism, secularism, socialism and Communism. While Gopal Krishna Gokhale and M.K. Gandhi and the Indian National Congress shaped the ideas of a unique, pluralist, non-xenophobic Indian nationalism, B.R. Ambedkar argued that India is not a nation and can’t be one as long as castes exist. At a time when the term ‘anti-national’ is instantly flung at anyone who disagrees with the BJP government, it may shock many to note that Rabindranath Tagore described himself as being “against the general idea of all nations.” You should read Tagore’s essays on Nationalism, especially if you sincerely believe in the virtues of Indian nationalism.
People protesting against the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government’s new Citizenship Amendment Act have been rallying around the Constitution, especially reading from the Preamble to demonstrate the strength of their cause. As a symbol, it is immensely powerful and is one reason why the protests have moral force, but it is important for the Constitution’s defenders to not allow it to become an object of worship. As I’ve warned in a previous column, it’s not a holy book but an injunction to use reason to conduct our affairs consistent with the values we’ve founded the Indian Republic upon. Going beyond what we know from high school civics textbooks, it is important to read Granville Austin’s classic book The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of A Nation on why the Indian Republic is what it is. Madhav Khosla’s upcoming book India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy promises to enlighten a new generation on the genius of the framers and the remarkable bequest they have left for us to defend, nurture and pass on to our children.
We should be aware that the greatest threat to any great republic is internal — not from ‘internal enemies’ but from the failure of the republic’s citizens. In Mortal Republic – How Rome Fell into Tyranny, Edward J. Watts gives a riveting account of how no-holds-barred politics undermined a republic that stood for four centuries, making way for Augustus to become emperor. The fact that democracies are susceptible to silver-tongued populists was well-known through history as Michael Signer shows in Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. Each republic has to find its own way to defend itself from democracy’s excesses.
Despite the dramatic global changes that have been brought about by Information Age politics (Infopolitik, perhaps?) in the past two decades, we have very few conceptual frameworks to understand what is actually going on. Many political scientists are still trying to use industrial age concepts to analyse ongoing developments and coming up short. But the proliferation of the internet and smartphones across the globe has profoundly changed the way society is constructed and — pun intended — wired. A decade ago, in the wake of the Arab Spring, some of us noticed that mobilisation of protests works quite differently in highly networked populations. We’ve seen how industrial-scale manipulation of social media is possible. We fear deep surveillance both by commercial and state entities. To get a handle on how technology is changing the foundations of our politics, I recommend Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy, Carl Miller’s The Death of the Gods and Jamie Susskind’s Future Politics.
We enter 2020 amid massive nationwide public protests and the prospect of “hum kagaz nahi dikhaenge” (we won’t show our papers) civil disobedience against the Modi-Shah government. Amid the political churn, we must devote thought on how we can heal a society that is being wrenched apart by polarisation and division. Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging is a field manual in how to bring people together, envision a common future and work towards building it. The Shire might be scoured, but it can be rebuilt. We should learn how to.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.